The EU Withdrawal Bill constitutes a massive attack on the fundamental rights of all UK citizens. By deeming the incorporation of the articles from the Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFREU) into UK Law as “unnecessary”, as the government has done, it is launching an unprecedented attack on the rights of all British citizens, the majority of whom are unaware of the benefits that CFREU protection affords.
However, the current debate around EU citizens rights portrays the loss of these rights almost exclusively in the dialogue of “expatriate rights”, creating a false narrative that implies that only UK citizens in other EU countries, and EU citizens in the UK, are affected by the proposed changes.
This article does not want to belittle the acute direct impact that Brexit has on these expatriate communities; it seeks to address the imbalance in the current debate to demonstrate that all British citizens, including those with no direct ties to other EU countries, will suffer from a huge loss of rights if this matter is left unchallenged.
Proposed Amendments and a Glaring Omission to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has generated almost 450 proposals for amendments since it was passed in its Second Reading on Monday 11 September 2017.
These proposed amendments cover all kinds of issues that policymakers object to in the current version of the Bill, ranging from small changes of wording, to objections over the concept behind whole sections of the Bill. A full list of the proposed amendments is available on the useful summary page for the EU (W) Bill on the parliament website and updated daily.
Some of these amendments are very noble, addressing justified concerns over giving the government too much power over all sorts of matters that are currently either 1) subject to vote of parliament, 2) devolved to the regions or 3) protected in law.
However, these amendments do not address one of the most important issues of all – the government’s claim that there is no need for transferring any legislation from the Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFREU ) into UK law.
The Reality and Perception of Human Rights Law in the UK
When David Davis announced that there was no need for converting the Charter of Fundamental Rights into domestic law – for the supposed reason that “Britain already has its own human rights laws”, he made so in the full knowledge that UK Human Rights law doesn’t afford its own citizens as many rights as the CFREU does.
UK Human Rights Law contains many glaring omissions compared to the Charter, and Davis is certainly aware of this, as he himself famously used the right to data protection to challenge the British government over the intrusive powers granted to GCHQ in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (2014).
Moreover, the UK Human Rights Act is not constitutionally protected from the whims of politicians as the CFREU is. As an Act of Parliament it can be amended, or even repealed in its entirety as some parliamentarians demand. Combined with the threat of leaving the European Court of Human Rights, which Theresa May and other government ministers have suggested, this would see the rights of all UK citizens vastly diminished.
The fact is that human rights protect the sovereignty of the individual against the sovereignty of the state – and that any increase of sovereignty for the state automatically reduces the sovereignty of the individual.
The Perception of Human Rights Law in the UK
The way in which the discourse around human rights law is framed in the UK media often suggest that it only provides benefits to minority populations, such as criminals and political or religious minorities, to the supposed detriment of supposedly “normal” majority population that has no need for such protection.
In its coverage of human rights law, the media predominantly focuses on anti-discrimination legislation, which can create the false perception that the beneficiaries of human rights legislation are not, to use the rhetoric of the far right, “normal” ordinary citizens, but “deviant” individuals from a minority, such as ethnic communities, the LGBT community, the disabled, the unemployed – or the politically active.
In such narratives, rights such as the right to data protection, are often portrayed as having almost no benefit to “normal” people, often combined with the notion that only criminals and other deviants object to government snooping, and that law-biding citizens have nothing to fear.
It is therefore unsurprising that the loss of these rights is seen as inconsequential by a broad chunk of the population that sees itself as ordinary.
Rights That Matter to Everyone
The discussion so far infers that a large part of the population in the UK places little value on Human Rights law in general, perceiving it primarily as legislation designed to protect minorities other than themselves, and often unaware of how human rights legislation protects them as “normal” citizens.
It is therefore unsurprising that very few British citizens would voice any objections to the abrogation of a specific piece of legislation – such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights .
The Charter does however contain legislation that clearly is in the interest of all people. The following 3 points provide examples of legislation to illustrate why all British people should defend the rights that they currently enjoy.
The Right to Data Protection
Data Protection mentioned above doesn’t just protect the civil liberties of criminal and political dissidents. It protects ordinary citizens from fraud.
It is virtually impossible to give government agencies access to private data on a system without totally compromising the security at a technological level. If you allow some external users access, then it becomes much harder to keep other external users out.
Even if a perfect system could be developed, not all government employees can be entrusted with the personal data they have access to. There have also been numerous cases against government employees who have fraudulently used their access to personal data for credit card scams and other cases of identify theft.
The Right to Family life
While the right to family life is also enshrined in the UK Human Rights Act, it is not afforded the same status and protection that it is as a fundamental freedom in EU law (CFREU Article 7). As a “qualified right” in UK law, it is too often made subordinate to other laws, including immigration , which sadly sees many families divided over trivial matters such as failing to comply with bureaucratic requirements.
Many tragic cases in the media recently show that bureaucrats already have powers to interfere in people’s lives. No one benefits when families are separated, and in most cases such separations only increase the burden on the state. Constraints on the power of these bureaucrats should not be loosened for both moral and economic reasons.
The Right to Healthcare
The right to healthcare is a socio-economic right under Article 35 of the CFREU. It has no equivalent in the UK Human Rights Act or the ECHR, in which healthcare is only considered as part of the Right to Life . While common law, requires the state “to treat people humanely” it places little positive obligation on the state to provide public health services.
Abrogating the CFREU would mean a removal of the legal right to heathcare for British people, which some see as a crucial step for the privatisation of healthcare in the UK.
Giving parliament more sovereignty over whatever it decides to do, in healthcare policy and other matters, is only possible by taking away the sovereignty we currently hold as individuals through rights and protections in law.
The British public should remember that Magna Carta was a deal between the lords and the King, and that there has been a long struggle to obtain the rights that have lifted “commoners ” into real citizens since then. The CFREU forms a part of the mix of laws that protects our interests as individuals against the state, and our society against the whims of politicians.
The above are just some of the rights that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights affords to all citizens. The full text of the charter and more information can be found on the Charterpedia of the website of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights .